Go back in time to 2009 and if you were to ask someone outside of the world of poker to name a top poker pro – male or female - one name might have been on the front of their minds: Annie Duke.
After years as one of the most prominent female pros during the poker boom years, Duke and Jennifer Harman had risen to become the two most recognizable female pros in the game.
With regular coverage on ESPN during the WSOP Main Event and appearances on poker TV shows like Poker After Dark, Duke was at the top of the invite list for every major poker event.
But after an appearance on Donald Trump’s The Celebrity Apprentice in 2009, where she finished runner-up to Joan Rivers and served as the show’s de facto villain #1, she made a quantum leap forward into the public eye to become one of the most known poker players ever.
Fast forward to a few years later, however, and after a massive failure with the Epic Poker League and the fallout from Black Friday, which saw her brother Howard Lederer exiled from poker and her main sponsor, UltimateBet, wiped out, Duke was now persona non grata in poker.
It’s remained that way ever since as Duke has moved on from poker and rarely, if ever, plays the game anymore – at least not in high-profile events like the World Series of Poker or on any major poker tour.
She has put the fame and notoriety she gained by her career in poker to good career use, however, as she’s now rebranded herself as a “decision-making” expert and built a business as a corporate speaker.
Annie Duke in Poker’s Boom Years
When it comes to women making money in the game of poker back when it was dominated even more by “the old guard,” Annie Duke was one of the best in the business.
Having grown up in a card-playing household in New Hampshire, Duke learned to play poker with her family at a very early age. After giving up her doctorate research at the University of Pennsylvania to get married and move to Montana, Duke followed her brother Howard Lederer into a pro poker career.
She started out playing in some local cardrooms and then Lederer suggested she take on the World Series of Poker in 1994. It turned out to be a winning proposition as she cashed in four events, one of which was a final-table finish and another was the Main Event.
Since then she accumulated millions of dollars in tournament cashes including a WSOP bracelet win in 2004 alongside a stunning $2m win in the WSOP Tournament of Champions event that same year.
Alongside Harman, Duke was one of the only woman playing in some of the highest-stakes cash games in Vegas and frequently found herself sitting at the same tables as poker legends Barry Greenstein, Doyle Brunson and Daniel Negreanu – the latter of which she went on to have a notorious feud with based on his belief she participated in several instances of "unethical behavior."
Duke harnessed her poker results into a side career teaching the game to others as well as an instructor for the WSOP Academy and for the poker training site ProPlayLive.com.
She was a sponsored pro at UltimateBet for many years as well and in 2008 added to her duties for the online poker site by taking on the role of consultant to improve the site’s poker offerings for players.
After the UltimateBet superuser scandal in 2013 Duke tried to distance herself from the brand and put out a statement suggesting she had no prior knowledge of the delayed hole cards feature.
Annie Duke on Celebrity Apprentice
As one of the top female players in the game and being prominently featured on the game’s biggest televised event like the NBC Heads-Up Championship, Duke's public profile grew quite a bit outside of the poker realm.
A frequent guest commentator on poker broadcasts and a regular interview subject for mainstream media, Duke was invited to be a contestant on the popular reality show Celebrity Apprentice, hosted by later-to-become President of the United States Donald Trump.
On the show Duke appeared alongside stars such as Dennis Rodman, Joan and Melissa Rivers, Clint Black and more. She played the boardroom game well enough to make it into the final against Joan Rivers but fell just short of winning.
Along the way she also got under the skin of Rivers in particular, who made no qualms about referring to Duke’s professional poker career as part of a shady business.
During the show, though, Duke raised more than $700,000 for Refugees International and continued to use her newfound celebrity to raise money for that and other organizations that help aid humanitarian efforts in Darfur as well with her Ante Up for Africa Celebrity Charity Poker Tournament in Las Vegas during the WSOP each year.
She co-created the tournament with Don Cheadle. Duke has also helped with fundraising efforts for Children's Hospital and other charities.
Annie Duke and the Epic Poker Disaster
The Epic Poker League was a short-lived, qualification-only high-stakes poker tour that lasted for only season in 2011.
Founded by Duke and former WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack the League was designed to cater to high-end professional players who were only eligible for a tour Card based on lifetime earnings of over $1m.
Players also were supposed to abide by a code of conduct and were promised a $1m freeroll tournament at the end of the season.
Only three of the scheduled five events ever took place, however, and the Epic Poker League declared bankruptcy in February, 2012.
Annie Duke, Corporate Speaker
Since the demise of the Epic Poker League, the indictment of the founders of UltimateBet and the exile of her brother from the poker community at large, Duke has also ceased participating in public poker tournament and cash games.
Instead she leveraged her career as a poker player to rebrand herself as a “Decision Strategist” and built a public speaking business. According to her website:
"Are you looking to hire a professional speaker with years of solid experience? Annie Duke speaks before corporate, business, and professional groups on a range of topics. Her talks combine her 20 years in poker with her interest in both scholarship and cognitive psychology. She leverages her expertise in the science of smart decision making to excel at pursuits as varied as championship poker and public while including speaking, teaching, philanthropy, and parenting."